A Really High IQ Conference Center

August 16, 2002
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GRAND RAPIDS — The term “smart office” may have suffered overuse since it came into vogue, but Central Interconnect is fine-tuning a genius office at the Rapistan Divison of Siemens Dematic.

Actually it’s a teleconferencing center and  — according to Arlen Smith, president of Central Interconnect — the only other office like it is under construction at the headquarters of Rapistan’s parent company in Nuremburg, Germany.

Smith’s firm, at 1425 Coit NE, is putting together the Nuremburg office, and Cumberland Furniture of Wyoming is building its centerpiece: a twin of Rapistan’s wedge-shaped 15-foot computer-wired cherry boardroom table.

The centers are the sites through which Rapistan’s chief, Pete Metros, and Dietmar Straub, Ph.D., the CEO of Siemens Dematic, will meet without ever having to leave their respective headquarters.

Moreover, up to 12 other people — engineers, finance experts, lawyers and the like — can use their laptops to support each side of each meeting, feeding their spreadsheets or technical drawings to cot-sized high-definition TV screens. 

Smith says teleconferencing technology has reached the point that — as they used to say about the movies — it’s like being there.

For one thing, Scott Mason, Rapistan Division’s telecom manager, reports that data throughput now is so fast that it eliminates the quarter-second delay that heretofore made global-distance conferences stilted and disjointed.

“It’s absolutely simultaneous,” Mason told the Business Journal. “People can talk or argue without any delays at all. And with their faces projected on these screens,” he added, waving to the two large TV screens at the back of the room, “it’s literally like someone in Nuremburg is looking and speaking though a window from an adjoining room.”

He said a television camera in each room can zoom out to encompass all the conferees or can pan and zoom in tight on one speaker’s face. Using touch-screen control, one person controls the camera at his end of the conference. He also can segment either or both of the room’s high-definition screens so that they show data in three quadrants with a speaker in the fourth and so on.

Smith said he’s particularly proud of the control screen’s programming that enables people who know nothing of computers or audio-visual production to run the globe-spanning show. 

Mason explained that Rapistan specified the center’s controls with non-experts in mind.

The boardrooms’ reason for being is to relieve Rapistan’s CEO of flights to Nuremburg once a month for a week of jet lag, conferences, and more jet lag upon the return.

But Mason added that the wear and tear on the president was only one of the concerns that led to the centers’ creation. The trips also physically separated Metros from the Rapistan Division and the other American divisions that now are his responsibility under Siemens Dematic.

Mason said his own experience is that flying to Nuremburg is a wearing 12-hour process. “And when you get there,” he said of the Siemens Dematic headquarters in southern Bavaria, “you’re whipped. But it’s mid-day for them and they want to start meeting right away.”

Last year’s terrorist attacks and the federal search-grandma-for-her-tweezers airport hassles are another reason to conduct teleconferences. Too, Mason said cost was a major factor.

He said Grand Rapids-Nuremburg round-trip tickets are pricey, as is lodging and the loss of time while key Rapistan executives and their staffs mark time at, say, Schipol Airport awaiting connections.

Mason said Nuremburg approved development of the conference centers provided they would save money.

“And that’s no problem,” Mason said, “considering that the cost of one of these trips runs about $6,000, plus the loss of the president’s time.”

Smith said, too, that the cost of related equipment is dropping rapidly, citing as an example the center’s liquid crystal overhead projector that is recessed in the ceiling. The projector produces clear, large images.

“Five years ago, you could get the same quality projections,” he said. “but the projector was the size of a snowmobile and it cost $80,000.” Today, he said, one gets the same quality from a projector about the size of a valise. “And it costs only $8,000. That illustrates what’s happening to the technology’s costs. Practically any company today can get a technically advanced conferencing center for $20,000.”

He said the Rapistan and Nuremburg centers are special and that’s reflected in their $400,000 to $450,000 cost. The largest expense is the table itself that not only is a beautiful piece of furniture, but also encompasses a very sophisticated sound pick-up system and the tilt-up feed connections for a dozen laptops.

The Rapistan and Nuremburg centers are the result of computer collaboration by Central Interconnect and design work by Stephen C. Fry, president of the Concept Design Group, at 89 Monroe Centre.

Fry’s firm designed the table to accommodate the center’s electronics and designed the room, its lighting and color scheme to promote video fidelity.

Concept Design and Central Interconnect are collaborating on several other overseas projects and are working together, too, for several local governments.

In fact, Smith’s firm is inviting public and private sector leaders to a symposium Sept. 19 and 20, demonstrating an interactive video display system that the firm installed for Plainfield Township’s public board meetings.

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